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 Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism

Conversion of the Western-Iranians

(Medes & Persians)


By Dr. Oric Basirov

Paper 5 - 17 November 1998




There seems little doubt that Zoroastrianism spread to Western Iran using the trade routes both to the north and to the south of the great central desert. Significantly, these routes are not the same as the ones taken by the Medes and Persians to arrive at the Iranian Plateau. The latter routes, it will be remembered, were to the north and to the west of the Caspian Sea. It appears that early in the eight century BC, the Median city of Raga (Nr. Tehran) became the centre of the Zoroastrianism in the West. There is also enough evidence to suggest that the new faith may have also reached the Persians in Anshân independently, from Sistân or Kirmân, via the southern route.



There is, however, no direct and irrefutable evidence to verify the exact date of the arrival of the eastern faith to Western Iran. Archaeology at this early stage is of little help. The Iranian religion as yet possessed no temples or any written liturgy. Its supreme "Wise Lord" and the lesser abstract deities did not lend themselves to any artistic representation. Even the old anthropomorphic gods of the old religion do not appear to have inspired any religious iconography. None of its many rituals, such as the veneration of fire, for example, had yet been artistically reproduced. It seems, therefore, that at that early stage, there were hardly any religious symbolism or imagery. Moreover, by banning burial, Zoroastrianism has denied the archaeologists an indispensable tool of their profession, namely, tombs, graves, mausoleums, coffins, sarcophagi, grave goods, and many other funerary paraphernalia.


ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE IN PREHISTORICAL PERIOD However, several Western Iranian burial sites dating from the first quarter of the first millennium BC have yielded material which is thought by some scholars to have links with the iconography of the eastern faith, and with that of the Zurvanite heresy. For example, the images of birds and beasts and various deities on the ritual objects, coming from many necropolises in Luristan, have been associated by Vanden Berghe, Ghirshman and others with the Avestic myths. These images often appear on votive pins, bronze belts, and on gold, silver and bronze plaques. Certain bronze motifs apparently depict the birth of the Zoroastrian primordial adversaries from the head of Zurvan. Others ostensibly show the procession of elders with bundles of twigs in their hands (Dandamaev, M., p.39). The relief on the Luristan plate in the Museum of Cincinnati, U.S.A., is linked to Zurvan by Ghirshman. He also sees in the celebrated "Luristan bronze idols" a resemblance to Sraosha, the Avestan deity (Ghirshman 1976, pp.100-1, & Pls.3, 4 (2) (apud Dandamaev, op. cit., p.40, n.317). Against this see Kreyenbroek 1985, p.176). These speculations are carried still further; thus the bronze figurines of a fertility goddess are believed to represent Anâhitâ, and a winged figure on a bronze vase in the Louvre is considered to be a representation of Ahura Mazdah (Ghirshman 1954, pp.102-4, & Pls.8-9; many early scholars interpret the anthropomorphic winged disc as an image of Ahura Mazdah; Ghirshman 1954, p.161, Fig.59; Herzfeld 1988, Pl.44; it probably represents the Xvarenah, see Boyce 1982, pp.103-5). Ghirshman states further that the communal graves containing many disarticulated bones, situated not far from where these objects were found, may in fact represent the Zoroastrian ritual of secondary disposal (Ghirshman, op. cit., p.104).


These theories, which tend to attest Zoroastrianism in pre-historical Western Iran are highly controversial, as virtually any relevant direct evidence comes from the historical period.


ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE IN HISTORICAL PERIOD Zoroastrianism is attested in the archaeological data coming from the early Achaemenian period onwards. The main body of the evidence is provided either by the Old Persian, Elamite, Aramaic,  and Babylonian inscriptions, or by the iconography depicted on stone, coins and seals. It seems the Achaemenians, inspired by the artistic repertoire of their western subjects, created many aspects of, by now, the familiar Zoroastrian iconography.



The earliest direct proof of the presence of Zoroastrianism in Western Iran comes from the nomenclature of the Achaemenian royal family. Some of these names are attested both in the Old Persian inscriptions, and in Greek records. The earliest Zoroastrian name used by the royal family is the Avestan Visht?spa (NP, Gosht?sp, Greek, Hystaspes) given around 600 BC to Cyrus the Great's second cousin, the father of Darius the Great. Kavi Visht?spa is the first Eastern Iranian king to be converted to Zoroastrianism by the prophet himself. Moreover, it seems that the Achaemenians took this name directly from the Avesta, as it is attested only in its original Avestic form. The Old Persian version would have been *Vishtasa (cf., John/Ivan, Henry/Heimreich), but it was probably one of the Eastern Iranian names which was not used by the Medes and Persians (cf. the absence of the German name Helmut from the English nomenclature). The Avestan Vishtaspa never became a popular name in Western Iran even after the arrival of the eastern faith. It was not until well after the Arab invasion, when the modern form, Goshtasp, gained some popularity. This was clearly inspired by the Shahnama and the subsequent Iranian revisionism.


Two other Zoroastrian names, Hutaos? and Pishishyaothna, have also been attested in the nomenclature of the Achaemenians. These also appear to have been taken directly from the Avesta, and represent Kavi Vishtaspa's queen and one of his son. They are rendered in Greek as "Atossa" and "Pissouthnes", and represent the names of the elder daughter of Cyrus the Great, and a grandson of Darius the Great respectively. Neither of theses names occurs again in the West after the Achaemenian period. It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that, as with Vishtaspa, they were not part of the Western Iranian nomenclature. Pishishyaothna however, is only attested in the Shahnama as "Peshutan".


The Elamite tablets of Persepolis, and the Aramaic documents yield, through theophoric names, evidence for the veneration of a number of the Avestan Yazatas. These, significantly, include the first three members of the exclusively Zoroastrian Amesha Spentas (see Lecture 3), Vahu Manah (NP, Bahman), Asha Vahushta (Ordibehesht), and Xshathra Vairya (Shahrivar). The absence of the three other members of the Zoroastrian Heptad [Speta Armaiti (Esfand), Haurvatat (Khordad), and Ameretat (Amordad) is not surprising, since they are female Yazatas, and relatively few women's names have survived from this time.


It is significant that among the numerous theophoric Old Persian names now known, not one is compounded with that of a daiva (Avestan Daeva), i.e., the warlike Indra and his fellows.



The only divinity that Darius the Great names in his many inscriptions is Zoroaster's god Ahura Mazdah, whom he knows as Ahuramazda. further, the king venerates him in all orthodoxy as the creator of this world and what is good in it: "A great god is Ahuramazda, who created this earth, who created the sky, who created man, and who created happiness for man" (Naqsh-Rustam, a, 1-4). The mention here of "happiness" is strikingly Zoroastrian, since in that religion happiness is regarded as a positive good, to be consciously fostered against the Evil Spirit's weapon of grief and sorrow. This special emphasis appears again when Darius instructs his people: "Whoever shall worship Ahuramazda as long as he has strength, he will be happy, both living and dead" (Behistun V, 18-20).


This ethical element is also present in a similar declaration by his son, Xerxes, who uses the significant word "atravan", the Old Persian equivalent of Avestan ashavan, meaning "just" or "righteous" (NP, ardavan). "The man who respects the law which Ahuramazda has established becomes happy while living and atravan when dead" (Persepolis, h, 46-48). Xerxes' words reflect a Vendidad passage where it is said of an offender: Living he is not ashavan, dead he does not enjoy the Best Existence AParadise@ (Vendidad, 5.61).


Xerxes has also left an inscription stating: "There was a place where previously Daivas were worshipped. Then by the will of Ahuramazda I destroyed that sanctuary of Daivas, and I proclaimed: Daivas shall not be worshipped, where earlier Daivas were worshipped, there I worshipped Ahuramazda" (Persepolis, h, 35-39).



The reverence of fire by the Achaemenians is attested in many ways, and most strikingly by the carving above the mausoleum of Darius the Great. This carving, repeated above each of his successors' tombs, shows each Great King standing in an attitude of reverence before a blazing fire raised in an alter. Blazing fire in such a holder, often with worshippers beside it, became from then on a standard element in Zoroastrian iconography. It appears on minor Achaemenian carvings and seals, and a fixed device on the reverse of the Persis and Sasanian coins.


Another recurrent device, also used from Achaemenian times onwards, was a worshipper with the Baresman (Middle Persian, Barsom), the bundle of rods held during the acts of worship both by the priest and by the well-instructed people. The Baresman was apparently by origin a handful of twigs on which the sacrifice was laid, and its use goes back (as Brahmanic parallels show) to proto-Indo-Iranian times. Its use during the prayers, however, was retained by Zoroaster, and formed an important element of the new religious iconography created by the Achaemenians under the artistic influence of their western subjects.



CONCLUSION The evidence for the conversion of the Persians and Medes to the new faith seems irrefutable; nonetheless, little is known about the development of Zoroastrianism under the Medes or during the early or even the middle Achaemenian periods. It is with the dawn of the 4th century BC that we first encounter the many dramatic events in the history of the faith in Western Iran. Some of these developments, e.g. the temple cult, shall be studied in the next lecture.



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